Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...Tell Me More
Months ago, we discussed natural alternatives to OTC pain relievers. Now, before you assume I’m some hippie snake oil peddler, mine is not a blanket, ideological opposition to pharmaceuticals; rather, it’s just that if there are more natural, cheaper, less intrusive ways to relieve pain, why not try them first?
But that last post was just about general pain relief. What about headaches? Nearly everyone gets them on occasion, and they’re seemingly common enough to warrant entire advertising campaigns revolving around their treatment. One of the natural pain relievers we previously noted was willow bark, which is chemically similar to aspirin. That’s an option for headaches. Magnesium, we said, is used to alleviate migraines, which are an especially painful form of headaches. Those are two common treatments, but surely there are other substances, methods, or solutions out there.
First, let us determine the different types of headaches and their causes.
These include migraines, tension headaches, and cluster headaches. We’ve discussed migraines extensively before, so I’ll focus on the other two.
The most common headache, tension headaches affect most people (some suggest up to 90% of adults will or do suffer from them). Most are centered around the base of the skull, the temple areas, or the forehead. The exact causes aren’t really understood, but a growing theory is that stress – physical, emotional, work-related, or otherwise – is the culprit. Tension headaches usually aren’t debilitating, but they’re certainly annoying (and ubiquitous). Fatigue and depression are also possible causes.
Cluster headaches attack in, well, clusters of two. They typically focus around the eyes, and they can persist for up to an hour and half. Once again, an exact cause hasn’t been identified, but brain scans on patients suffering from cluster headaches reveal abnormal activity in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain responsible for regulating our internal clocks. Although normal headache treatments (like OTC pain relievers) are generally ineffective, abnormal sleep patterns have been fingered as a possible cause. Hmm, imbalances in internal clock brain chemistry stemming from inadequate sleep might cause health issues? Sounds familiar.
Secondary headaches are generally more severe and alarming than primary headaches. They usually stem from a trauma, injury, or a serious systemic issue – like tumors, meningitis, high blood pressure, dehydration, even stroke (among many). These are serious, but they usually don’t affect huge numbers of people. If you’re getting headaches because of a serious medical condition, chances are you’re already aware of it.
So what can we do about headaches?
Well, there are always OTC pain relievers – stuff like aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen. These can give short-term relief, but there are definite drawbacks. Aspirin and ibuprofen can irritate the stomach and cause bleeding. People on blood thinners might want to be use caution, lest they trigger a massive bleed-out session. Acetaminophen is particularly hard on the liver, and people who drink a ton or have significant liver damage run the risk of exacerbating the situation to dangerous levels if they use acetaminophen (as if liver damage and alcohol abuse weren’t bad enough). And of course, like all medications, over-reliance on OTC pain relievers to get over headaches can lead to increased recurrence of the symptoms when you’re not taking the drugs. It’s almost like withdrawal. You’ve grown to depend on the drug for pain relief; when you don’t have the drug, the pain comes back.
As stated before, there are more natural treatments (like willow bark for normal headaches or magnesium for migraines).
Feverfew is an herb commonly used by headache sufferers. It acts by limiting the production of prostaglandins, the brain chemicals responsible for contracting blood vessels. The contraction and expansion of the blood vessels are thought to cause the “pounding” that typifies many headaches, and feverfew seems to reduce it. It’s natural, but – as with OTC pain relievers – suddenly discontinuing its use after habitual ingestion can lead to more headaches.
The acerola cherry is a Latin American “super fruit.” It’s loaded with all the antioxidants, vitamins, and nutrients typical of most berries, but it also contains high levels of anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are thought to be anti-inflammatories similar to aspirin and ibuprofen, which are known to relieve headaches.
Easier if you have a willing partner, but head massages can be self-applied. Strong pressure at the source of pain seems to have a reducing effect. If you have a partner, have them press on either side of your head with their palms, like they’re trying to crush a melon. If the pain’s located in the temples, rub them. If it’s just sort of all over the head, palm the top of your head and massage and squeeze the scalp.
Stress is a common – probably the most common – cause of headaches. Have a glass of red wine (but not too many, unless you want another kind of headache) and relax. Take a nap. Stress caused by lack of sleep can cause headaches (especially cluster headaches). Run a bath. Read a book. Spend quality time with your loved ones. Get some intense exercise and let those endorphins flow. Get a massage (again); it will offer double relief – physical and mental.
Prevention is, as always, the best way to stop a headache. If you aren’t suffering yet, you’re doing something right, but it’s best to shore up your success. Avoid stress. Eat Primal foods. Avoid pro-inflammatory grains and sugars. Follow the 10 Laws of the Primal Blueprint and get plenty of sleep and leisure time. Play games. Go on hikes. Enjoy life and live well, and I think you’ll find headaches to be a thing of the past.
I’m sure there are dozens of other herbs or natural remedies out there. I’d be interested to know about them, but if you’re following the Primal Blueprint in all its facets – diet, activity, exercise, leisure, sleep, stress prevention – I think you’ll find them to be highly unnecessary.